Category Archives: starter

French Ratatouille or Russian Eggplant Caviar

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Are you ready for another family classic?

This recipe is something my grandma cooked and my mom cooked and I cook ALL summer long…and sometimes in the winter and in-between. In Russia it’s called “Baklajannaya Ikra” or “Eggplant Caviar”. Surprisingly enough the recipe is almost identical to French Ratatouille. There is also Sicilian Caponata that is oh so similar with an addition of olives and capers. After travelling the world and discovering all the food similarities you realise we are a lot more connected than we think.French Ratatouille or Russian Eggplant Caviar

This dish is incredibly flavourful and so versatile. It’s eaten as a warm side dish or as a tasty topping for your crusty bread, a favourite with Russian children. As a little girl I remember eating it cold with bread for an afternoon snack. I still love doing it but Brad really prefers it warm so you are going to discover for yourself which way is your favourite.
Ingredients:

  • Eggplant-2 medium
  • Zucchini-2-3 medium
  • Onions-2
  • Red, yellow, green peppers( I use whatever I have on hand)-2
  • Garlic-2-3 cloves
  • Parsley- 1/2 bunch
  • Cilantro-1/2 bunch
  • Salt and Pepper to taste
  • Ketchup or tomato paste-1 tbsp.
  • Olive oil-2 tbsp.

Method:

There is a long version and a speedy version. The long one involves slicing eggplant, putting it in a colander and sprinkling it with salt and letting it sit for an hour under a heavy weight. That draws bitterness and extra moisture out. It really does. However, I often skip that step and never regret it. If you decided to skip the first step as well the dish will take a bit longer to cook. Lately I’ve been using a cast iron casserole which cuts the cooking time in half. After years of not wanting to spend the money I finally broke down and bought an Ikea version (still can’t bring myself to pay the Le Creuset price tag) and I’ve never been happier. A cast iron pot is truly a must have tool for every kitchen. Now I have a small size and a big size and 3 skillets!

Back to our Eggplant caviar. Dice your onions, eggplant, zucchini, red or green peppers, set aside. Preheat the olive oil in a heavy casserole type dish and add onions and peppers first, let them saute over medium heat for about 5 minutes and then add your eggplant. Eggplants takes longer to cook than zucchini so if you put them together zucchini will turn into a mush and eggplants will still be spongy. Cook eggplant together with onions and peppers until it’s nearly done, about 7 minutes, then add zucchini, parsley, cilantro, minced garlic and a tablespoon of ketchup. Here is my confession, I never cook with ketchup, I don’t even like it but I found it gives this dish just a right amount of sweetness! You can add  some tomato paste, it’s up to you. Cook it for 5-10 minutes longer.

You will see quite a bit of liquid after you’ve added zucchini, at this point you can turn the heat up and cook it down or keep it a vegetable stew consistency. Mine varies depending on how I feel or how hungry my family is!

The batch right here was pretty dry and perfect to use as a bruschetta topping.French Ratatouille or Russian Eggplant Caviar The recipe given here is a basic recipe that you could be altered by adding any other vegetables that you like.
Just a few examples of what I’ve done in the past: At various times I’ve added green peas (frozen), asparagus, green beans, carrots, potatoes, chick peas and red kidney beans. They all work well. Play with it and find your favourite combo!French Ratatouille or Russian Eggplant Caviar

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Hummus with Grilled Eggplant

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Hummus with Roasted Eggplant
When my life is super busy I like to keep tasty and nutritious snacks in the fridge that help me recharge during the day and hummus is one of those things. I usually make my own as I find the pre-made varieties are often overpriced and lacking in the taste department. I also love to mess with different flavour combinations which is exactly what happened last night. Our friends were coming over for a game night and hummus is a pretty safe snacky thing to server to a crowd.  So I opened a can of chickpeas and threw them in the food processor only to find out a minute later there was really nothing else to add to that!  I guess have been working a little be too hard on emptying the fridge before our holiday. I loving putting fresh herbs in my hummus like cilantro or dill but this time I had to go without and had to improvise…fast. After the second and more thorough look in the fridge I discovered a forgotten and pushed to the back jar of grilled eggplant packed in oil. I remember buying it for a pizza topping but not using it. I love eggplant as I am sure you’ve noticed by the frequency of eggplant posts in this blog. It must be a Russian thing.

So I threw the eggplant slices in there, squeezed some lemon juice, garlic, salt and gave it a whirl. Not bad, not bad at all.  I always put tahini paste in my hummus but this time I wanted it to have a distinct eggplant taste so I held it back.

Note: The jarred eggplant I am using is this recipe is similar to a jar of artichokes and usually would be found in the deli section next to sundried tomatoes or olives.

Ingredients:

  • Chick Peas- 1 can
  • Lemon juice- from one lemon
  • Garlic- 2-3 cloves
  • Grilled Eggplant slices preserved in oil (from a jar)-1 cup
  • Oil from eggplant/olive oil- 1/4 cup
  • Salt to taste

Method:

Combine all ingredients except for oil in the food processor and pulse until smooth, with the motor still running pour in the oil in slow and steady stream, blend for a few seconds longer, then stop the food processor, taste your hummus and adjust seasoning if needed.

Everyone absolutely loved that new concoction which tasted like a cross between a regular hummus and a baba ganoush that I briefly considered calling it Baba Hummoush but in the end decided to stick with a boring “Hummus with Grilled Eggplant”. If you can think of a more clever name could you please let me know?!!

Hummus with Roasted Eggplant

Cilantro Pesto Bean Salad with Goat’s Cheese

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Cilantro Pesto Bean Salad with Goat's Cheese I love beans and am always on the lookout for the new ways to eat them. They are filling, low in fat and high in nutrition. What’s not to like! Well, if I am really honest, the taste can be sometimes quite bland. The beans are like that boring guy who has a great substance and character but lacks the charisma and needs a wing man to show him off.
That is when our flavour buddies come in- Cilantro, Garlic and Chilli! They are all about spunk and excitement but also need to attach themselves to something hefty to carry them. This Cilantro Pesto Bean Salad recipe is a match made in heaven as it does exactly that. It brings things together that desperately need each other!

Cilantro Pesto Bean Salad with Goat's cheese
Ingredients:

  • Butter Beans- 1 can
  • Red Kidney Beans- 1 can
  • Red Chilli (finely minced)- 1
  • Goat’s Cheese or Feta (crumbled)- 1-2 tbsp.

Ingredients for pesto:

  • Spinach-200gr
  • Walnut pieces- 3/4 cup
  • Garlic cloves- 3
  • Red wine vinegar-3 tbsp.
  • Flat leaf parsley- 1/4 cup
  • Cilantro-1/4 cup
  • Lemon juice- 1/2 lemon
  • Olive oil-1/3 cup
  • Salt and pepper- a pinch of both

Method:

Combine all the pesto ingredients but olive oil in a food processor and blend until smooth.  With the motor of the food processor still running slowly pour in the olive oil in a thin steady stream until the mixture is well combined.

{The recipe given here will make about 1.5 cups of pesto. Use 1/4-1/3 cup for the bean salad and refrigerate the rest in an air-tight container. It will keep for two weeks in your fridge or a month in a freezer.}

Combine the beans and dress them with 1/4 cup of pesto, sprinkle with finely minced red chilli and crumbled goat’s cheese. If you love the flavour of this pesto go ahead and check out my Potato Salad.

Chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes allowing the flavours to blend. This salad is absolutely gorgeous with any type of barbecued meat!
Cilantro Pesto Bean Salad with Goat's CheeseCilantro Pesto Bean Salad with Goat Cheese

Feta and Zucchini Fritters with Garlic Yogurt Sauce

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Feta and Zucchini Fritters
How do you know your friends really love you? It’s easy. They share their garden bounty with you!I felt really loved by my friend Angela not once but twice last week. First when the girl showed up at my door with a bag full of zucchini she’d earlier that day cut from her garden. And the second time when I had the first bite of the zucchini fritter dipped in a zingy garlic yogurt sauce. Oh the joy when the recipe turns out even better than you’d envisioned!
Feta and Zucchini Fritters with garlic yogurt sauceFeta and Zucchini Fritters with Garlic Yogurt Sauce
Here is what you will need to make the fritters.
Ingredients:

  • Zucchini- 3 medium
  • Salt-1tsp.
  • Onion- 1 large
  • Butter- 1 tbsp.
  • Fresh Dill (chopped) – 1/4 cup
  • Feta cheese (crumbled)- 6 0z/200 gr
  • Flour- 1/2 cup/125 gr
  • Eggs-2
  • Pepper to taste (optional)
  • Oil for frying

Ingredients for Garlic Yogurt Sauce:

  • Greek Yogurt- 1 cup
  • Garlic- 2 cloves
  • Fresh Dill- 1 tbsp

Method:

Grate zucchini and toss it with 1 tsp. of salt in a large colander, let it sit for 30 min. The salt will draw water out of zucchini. Squeeze the zucchini to remove the excess water and wrap it in two sheets of paper towel, squeeze again. Don’t skip this step even if it seems fiddly as it’s important to the success of the recipe and it’s the only fiddly step! I promise. Place zucchini in a large bowl.

Chop the onion and saute in butter or oil over low heat for about 5 minutes. I chose butter. I am Russian after all. Add the onion to the bowl of zucchini along with feta cheese and dill, mix to combine. Whisk flour and eggs together, the mixture will be sticky and add to the zucchini mixture. Combine all the ingredients together. At this point you can add more salt and freshly ground pepper. I didn’t add any more salt because feta is already quite salty and in the end I was happy with the taste. Your zucchini mixture will look more like a zucchini salad rather than a pancake batter, don’t get alarmed, the egg and flour concoction will hold your patties together like magic. 🙂

Add enough oil to the large skillet to come up about 1/2 inch and allow it to get very hot. Drop the zucchini mixture the size of a golf ball into the hot oil and flatten it a bit to form a patty. Fry until golden on both sides.

Mix yogurt, minced garlic and chopped dill to make the garlic yogurt sauce. Serve immediately and enjoy!

Feta and Zucchini Fritters with Garlic Yogurt SauceFeta and Zucchini Fritters with Garlic Yogurt Sauce These fritters are wonderful both as a side dish to your meat and as a vegetarian main course.
Feta and Zucchini Fritters with Garlic Yogurt Sauce
Note: The recipe was adapted from “Please to the table” by Anya von Bremzen and John Welchman

Spinach and Walnut Pesto Potato Salad

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Spinach Walnut Pesto Potato Salad
In this season of barbecues and outdoor eating you can’t find a more suitable side dish to a grilled steak or a burger than a nicely made potato salad. At least not for me. In my potato loving ways I am Russian through and through. However, I will only eat a potato salad made by me. A potato salad snob? Perhaps. I give no excuses but I do offer recipes. One of my all time favourite potato salads is called Olivier and I often turn to it at my family’s requests but as usual I crave variety.

A couple of weeks I ago a stumbled upon a recipe for a Georgian bean salad in one of my numerous cookbooks. The dressing for it caught my eye as something I vaguely recalled eating as a child while spending a holiday in the country of Georgia with my parents. Georgia’s cuisine is quite famous and loved in Russia for its unusual flavour combinations, their use of fresh herbs and spices and overall deliciousness. Needless to say, I was absolutely thrilled with the result. The dressing had the basic ingredients for Italian pesto but instead of using basil and pine nuts as the base, it called for spinach, cilantro, parsley and walnuts. I made so much of that pesto and literally fell in love with the flavour that for the next two weeks I’ve been putting it in everything-my morning eggs, my sandwich and finally potato salad. This is how a new and now a favourite potato salad was born. I wanted to contrast the creamy texture of new potatoes with something crunchy so I added sliced radishes and fresh shelled peas. Voila!

Spinach Walnut Pesto Potato SaladSpinach Walnut Pesto Potato Salad
Ingredients:

  • New small potatoes- 1 lbs
  • Radishes-10
  • Fresh peas- 1/4 cup (shelled)
  • Baby greens – 2 cups

Ingredients for pesto:

  • Spinach-200gr
  • Walnut pieces- 3/4 cup
  • Garlic cloves- 3
  • Red wine vinegar-3 tbsp.
  • Flat leaf parsley- 1/4 cup
  • Cilantro-1/4 cup
  • Red chilli or dried chilli flakes (optional)-1 small
  • Lemon juice- 1/2 lemon
  • Olive oil-1/3 cup
  • Salt and pepper- a pinch of both

Method:

Cook the potatoes in a large pot until tender but not falling apart, they should be firm. I prefer to cook mine with the skins on. If you are using large potatoes, quarter them after they’ve been cooked. Let them stream dry and set aside.

While the potatoes are cooking prepare the pesto. Combine all the ingredients but olive oil in a food processor and blend until smooth.  With the motor of the food processor still running slowly pour in the olive oil in a thin steady stream until the mixture is well combined.

{The recipe given here will make about 1.5 cups of pesto. Use 1/4-1/3 cup for the potato salad and refrigerate the rest in an air-tight container. It will keep for two weeks in your fridge or a month in a freezer.}

Coat the potatoes with the pesto sauce while they are still warm. That will allow for the flavours to blend properly. Put in the refrigerator for the potatoes to cool. Before serving toss the salad with sliced radishes, shelled peas, and baby greens.

Spinach and Walnut Pesto Potato Salad
As you can seen I had little visitors while I was shooting who were set to pinch sweet peas off any time I wasn’t looking but got caught in the act!

Get Your Picnic On!

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Roasted Eggplant Salad

Lately, I am all smiles. Why wouldn’t I be? The weather outside is glorious! I know I am not the only one who is loving sweet summer days that lead to wonderful outdoor dining. A while back I announced a contest. I suggested my readers would challenge me with any recipes/meal ideas and I would cook them, photograph them and report back. I was supposed to randomly draw up 3 winners. Drum rolls please….
The first winner is Noemi Hedrick. Here is what she requested, “I would love to see a picnic “done well”. Cold foods that make you want to picnic ALL DAY! I love chicken on skewers and dip. Can you deal with that?”

Absolutely!

I loved working on this post because it combined so many things that I adore-my reader’s request, Russian food I grew up on, endless tasting tests with friends and family while having picnics of my own.

The first thing I got working on was skewered meat with dip called Shashlik in Russian, which is mostly likely a borrowed word as it doesn’t sound Russian to me. 🙂 Shashlik is a marinated meat that is later skewered and slowly roasted over hot coals. It’s Russian campers’ favourite past time. All city dwellers will talk of nothing more than their desire to finish the work week and go to the countryside “na shashliki” (to have shashlik).  This tasty food came to Russia in the 19th century and was brought by Russian soldiers who fought in the Crimean War and fell in love with that local delicacy. Since then it’s been one of the most beloved foods and became the symbol for outdoor eating.Russian skewered meat "Shashlik"

My husband Brad was first introduced to shashlik by my two friends Marina and Misha in the country house outside of Nizhni Novgorod, Russia. He loved it so much that he made it his first project in our newly bought house to build a brick fire pit for making shashlik. It does tend to leave an impression on people!

Russian Shish Kebab "Shashlik"
Shashlik is traditionally enjoyed with fresh vegetables and simple salads.
        My Picnic Menu

  1. Pork Shashlik with Minted Greek Yogurt Dip
  2. Crudités (tomatoes, green onions, cucumbers or any vegetables you like)
  3. Grilled Eggplant Salad with crusty bread
  4. Mixed Olives
  5. Red Wine

Russian Picnic Menu
Russian Picnic Menu
Grilled Eggplant Salad
Ingredients for Shashlik:

Marinade:

  • Onions (sliced for marinade)- 3 large
  • Garlic- 1 head
  • Cumin- 1 tbsp.
  • Paprika- 1 tbsp.
  • Oregano- 1 tsp.
  • Salt- 1 tsp.
  • Fresh Pepper- 1 tsp.
  • Red Wine Vinegar- 2/3 cup
  • Lemon Juice- 1 lemon
  • Bay Leaf-2

Skewers:

  • Pork Loin- 2,5 lbs
  • Onions (quartered for skewers)
  • Bell Peppers- 2-3 (red, green, yellow)

Method:

{The night before}

In a large wide bowl combine all the ingredients for marinade, then add 3/4″ cubes of pork loin, cover with either a lid or a cling wrap and refrigerate over night.

Prepare hot coals for grilling until coated with white ash or use a gas grill.

Remove the meat from the marinade and string it on a skewer intermittent with pieces of bell peppers and onions. Grill the skewers sprinkling with marinade every 3 minutes for 9-11 minutes.

Note: Do not use the onion slices from the marinade on your skewers as they were in contact with raw meat for hours and might be unsafe to eat.

Ingredients for Minted Greek Yogurt Dip:

  • Greek Yogurt-1 cup/250ml
  • Lemon Juice-1/2 lemon
  • Fresh Mint- 3-4 sprigs, leaves only (to taste)
  • Cucumber (diced)- 1/4 cup
  • Radishes (diced)-1/4 cup
  • Salt and Pepper to taste

Method:

Recruit your spouse or partner to grill the meat. This way you can get all the side dishes ready. Combine yogurt, lemon juice, mint, salt and pepper. Add cucumbers and radishes right before serving as the vegetables will release quite a bit of liquid and will make the dip too watery if combined too early.

Also prepare a selection of raw vegetables and arrange them on a platter. They will be delicious with Minted Greek Yogurt Dip.

Grilled Eggplant Salad

Ingredients for Grilled Eggplant Salad:

  • Eggplant- 2 medium
  • Eastern European style or Italian marinated mushrooms (usually in the deli section)- 1 small jar
  • Bell peppers (red, orange, yellow)-  2-3 mini peppers or just the number according to the size
  • Cherry tomatoes (halved)- 7-8
  • Olives (optional)-1/4 cup
  • Flat leaf parsley (chopped)- 1/4 cup
  • Garlic (crushed)- 1 clove
  • Red wine vinegar- 1 tbsp.
  • Olive Oil- 1 tbsp.
  • Salt to taste

Method:

While your barbecue is warming up, cut the eggplants into 1/2″ slices and leave them in a bowl filled with water and 1 tsp. of salt for 30 minutes. Then remove them from water and put on the skewers, brush with a bit of olive oil or spray with a calorie reduced cooking spray. Grill on the barbecue for 10 minutes, test for doneness, they should not be spongy but have a soft and silky texture.

While your eggplant is getting grilled, prepare the dressing for the salad. Mix together oil, vinegar, crushed garlic and chopped parsley, set aside.

As soon as you take the eggplant off the grill, put the slices in a salad bowl and pour the dressing on them while still hot, then add the remaining ingredients, season with salt if needed.

Set aside for the flavours to meld. This salad is delicious both cold from the refrigerator and at room temperature. Perfect picnic food!

{Note: Grilled Eggplant is also great just on its own with the salad dressing as pictured in this post.}Grilled Eggplant SaladRussian skewered meat "Shashlik"
So what do you think Noemi? Did I handle it alright?

Chunky Pico De Gallo

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Chunky Pico De Gallo
I can’t believe it took me so long to share one of my favourite things to eat with you friends! However, summer is upon us, and since even England is reluctantly warming up, it calls for colourfully fresh outdoor dining.

This salad is something that appears on our table any season of the year but tastes best in the summer when the tomatoes are ripe and flavourful. It comes in many incarnations as long as there are the major players present-tomatoes, onions, cilantro, garlic, chillies and lime juice. The rest is variable and optional. I usually make it into a fresh salsa but once in a while I change it up and add  various beans, corn and such. You can use it as a filling for your burritos and fajitas but you can also eat it as a salad. My kids called it a dip because they were dipping tortilla chips into it. Whatever you call it, this concoction is bursting with flavours, vitamins and is out-of-this-world delicious.

Chunky Pico De Gallo
Ingredients:

  • Cherry Tomatoes (red and yellow)- 2 large handfuls
  • Red Onion-1 small
  • Garlic-2 cloves
  • Cilantro- a bunch
  • Red Chilli (minced)-1
  • Lime Juice (I was out of limes and used lemons!)- from 1 lime
  • Green Onions-3
  • Chick Peas/Black Beans- 1 can
  • Green Lentils (optional)-1/4 cup
  • Corn- 1 cup
  • Avocado (diced)-1
  • Salt to taste

Method:

Half or quarter the cherry tomatoes, dice the red onion finely, mince the garlic cloves and red chilli, then add chopped cilantro, sliced green onions and lime juice. To the mixture add the beans/chick peas, lentils, corn and salt. Mix everything and taste for the right balance of spices. You can see that this is hardly an accurate recipe and more of an idea. I like my pico de gallo spicy but you can skip or half the amount of onion and garlic if you prefer a milder version.  Add diced avocado right before serving to avoid browning.

This Pico De Gallo is truly a flavour winner and packed with power foods like chick peas, lentils and avocado. My kids were scarfing it down, having completely forgotten that they can’t stand tomatoes!

Chunky Pico De Gallo